Performance anxiety is not genre-specific. Many of us who were trained in traditional conservatory-type schools tend to think that performance anxiety is a problem primarily experienced by high-level classical musicians. This is categorically untrue. Studies have shown that musicians of all stripes experience anxiety and search for ways to cope with it. Your rock band, jazz band, recorder ensemble, a capella choir, and concert choir kids are all in the same boat and all need your support.
Expectations matter. We always want our students to perform at their best; we want to encourage them and support them and bring out the best in them. Just remember that students who are expected to perform at a high level have been shown to have greater anxiety than those not burdened by those expectations. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place! Simple awareness of this fact for teachers may help them to ease the pressure on and support the performance endeavors and anxious experiences of their highest-performing students.
Boys are girls do not always respond in the same way. Research has shown that females are more consistent and predictable in their response to performance situations. Typically, they worry about impending performances well in advance of them and report greater anxiety and increased physiological response prior to them. However, this does not mean that males are immune. They simply respond differently. In one study of young musicians, many boys reported minimal anticipatory anxiety and maintained normal heart rates even in the minutes before they were about to perform for a large audience. However, they displayed a variety of anxious behaviors (e.g., fidgeting) and, when it actually was their turn to go onstage, had skyrocketing heart rates.
interesting to note that the boys who did not display anxious behaviors, but rather stayed completely still, had high heart rates earlier on and ultimately did not perform as well as their fidgeting counterparts.) What does this tell us? While girls may stress about impending performances well in advance, it is less common for boys to ruminate about them, and possibly more detrimental for those who do.
Perhaps fidgeting is a coping
mechanism to keep the focus off the impending situation. Ultimately, the anxiety still kicks in, to greater and lesser extents, whether students think it is going to or not. It is important for teachers to be aware of this disparity lest they think it is only the girls who need support. It is not.
Middle school is particularly challenging. This is true in every imaginable way, but particularly with regard to performing. We need to remind ourselves of the high level of self-consciousness and vulnerability children experience in this period of development. To put oneself out there, on display, in a performance is a brave endeavor. It should be encouraged and lauded.
Musical performance can be a wonderful part of student musicians’ lives – bringing the fruit of many hours of practice, effort, and heartfelt musical expression to an audience.
anxiety may be a common experience, it does not need to be the overriding emotion. Talk to your students; normalize the experience and share your thoughts and expertise with them. The more we can learn and share with the next generation, the better prepared they will be to face performance challenges and to successfully and happily bring their musical offerings to the world for many years to come.
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Charlene Ryan, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Music Education at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. She has published extensively on the performance experiences of young musicians, with a particular focus on the development and experience of performance anxiety in children and youth.
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